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Tracy Fessenden: Religion Around Billie Holiday

Steve Provizer By

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Religion Around Billie Holiday
Tracy Fessenden
280 pages
ISBN: #9780271080956
Cambridge University Press
2018

This is one of the most unusual books about a jazz figure that I've encountered in a long time. The premise, as spelled out in this interview with author Fessenden, is fascinating. She is the Steve and Margaret Forster Professor and interim Director of the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. Her previous book is Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature, on Princeton University Press and she is Editor of the journal Religion and American Culture, published by Cambridge University Press.

Q: What initial intimations did you have about Billie Holiday and her singing that made you think this kind of investigation would be worthwhile?

Tracy Fessenden: Truthfully, I knew I'd be at work on the book for years, and I wanted to write about someone I knew I would never, ever grow tired of. The premise of the "Religion Around" series is that we can learn a great deal about any iconic historical figure by apprehending not only his or her own religious or spiritual life, whatever that may have been, but also the religious currents around that person and the ways he or she moved with or against them. That Billie Holiday isn't someone we readily think of as a religious figure makes her a great test case for that idea. She didn't have the big church sound we associate with, say, Bessie Smith or Mahalia Jackson or Aretha Franklin, because unlike them she didn't come up in the great Afro-Protestant musical cultures that gave us gospel and blues. Yet she herself has become a kind of sacred figure. And her sound is as alive today as it ever was. It seemed worthwhile to me to think about how the spiritual currents she navigated might have shaped her life and her sound and what she and others made of them.

Religion Around Billie Holiday is not a brief for Holiday's piety or impiety, her importance to religious history, or her prophetic voice for civil rights. It is not a study of sacred themes in her work, for indeed Holiday recorded almost nothing that could be called religious. There's the slyly ersatz spiritual "God Bless the Child"; a bootleg version of "My Yiddishe Momme" that showed up on a 2010 pressing of Jewish classics; and the rumor of "O Come All Ye Faithful" on a flimsy laminate disk she made in a coin-operated Voice-O-Graph booth, now a collector's holy grail. She copyrighted the song "Preacher Boy" for her erstwhile minister husband, the brutish Louis McKay, but never bothered to record it. Religion Around Billie Holiday focuses not on Holiday's religious practice or expression but rather on the environing religious conditions to which her genius responded, and in which her life and sound took form. These include the urban, pre—Vatican II Catholicism that undertook to reform her; the theologies, politics, spaces, and sounds of the Afro-Protestant churches to which she never belonged; the vigilante faith that passed for justice in the gallant South; the vaporous, shape-shifting Jewishness of the American songbook; the gravitational pull of her contemporaries' eclectic religious orbits; and the mythic charge of her own luminous iconicity.

Q: Billie was such a strong character and yet, there were many perceptions and descriptions of her, as if people wanted to project identities on her for their own reasons. Do you agree with this analysis and, if so, why do you think this was the case?

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